Tales from United Way’s Be a Middle School Mentor: I Became the Mentor I Needed When I was Younger

By Tiffini Simoneaux, Early Childhood Manager, Office of Equity at the Office of Mayor William Peduto

Imagine where you might be right now if you had a mentor during your most sensitive, formative years? How might your life be different? What dreams might you have pursued?

By middle school, all kids have distinct interests, ideas or goals they set their sights on, but not every child has the support system to help them realize these aspirations. As a child overflowing with creative ideas, I was often confused and in desperate need of direction – needless to say, I could have used a mentor all throughout middle school.

I grew up in a single-parent family with my brother; since my mother was always working, I often had to motivate myself. I was fortunate, however, to have one exceptional teacher, Mrs. Beyers, who, simply by carving out a few minutes to chat and get to know me as an individual, set an example that I would follow for the rest of my life. The impact of that relationship inspired me not only to establish a career in education, but to incorporate a program like United Way’s Be A Middle School Mentor into my life’s work. There is no magic formula to mentoring, but there are three steps that I consistently find effective in becoming the mentor I needed when I was in middle school:

1. Give it time and don’t give up – Striking up a bond with a mentee requires patience and consistency. It is crucial to remain dedicated to the task at hand no matter how aloof a mentee may seem in the beginning. (After all, they’re middle schoolers.) Move into the experience with an open mind and understanding that it may take a couple months for the mentee to become completely comfortable with the situation. Don’t look for immediate results, but instead set a wide-range of future goals that you and the mentee can work on together. Establishing a plan of action proves to the mentee that you aren’t going anywhere and will be there to watch them cross the finish line.

2. Use questions as communication stepping stones – Simple questions like, “How was your math test? What did you eat for lunch? How was your sister’s birthday party?” may seem like insignificant small talk, but when it comes to mentoring, these are often the building blocks to a successful partnership. Show the mentee that you are an active listener and incorporate past responses they have made into current conversations. The more interest-specific the questions are, the better; mentees are much more likely to open up when they are asked about something they love, and the best way to find that out is by simply taking an interest.

3. Remain open, sharing IS caring – Successful communication between a mentor and a mentee is a two-way street. The greatest mentors are the ones who openly welcome mentees into their lives. Become an open book about your past experiences – good or bad. Being honest about your past mistakes or failures can be an invaluable educational tool for your mentee. Not only will it unveil to them a part of your history and create trust, but it will teach them how to approach a situation differently in their own life. Whether it is a story about how you also struggled with math in sixth grade or what you wore to your first junior-high dance, honest communication is the foundation to a long-lasting mentor-mentee partnership.

One good mentor is all it takes to convince a child that their thoughts, skills and talents are valid and can lead to a life of greatness. Imagine yourself saying, “I believe in you,” inspiring a kid enough to study for a test, try out for the basketball team or say no to drugs. Because of your willingness to invest in a mentee and show them that they matter, they had the motivation to look to the future with nothing but optimism, confidence and pride. Who knows, maybe because of your mentorship, you helped develop one of the future’s greatest innovators, thinkers or creators!

To learn more about how to participate in United Way’s Be A Middle School Mentor program, visit: https://uwswpa.org/be-a-middle-school-mentor/.